I find that food cravings are largely dependant on the time of the year and the weather outside, although other factors such as pregnancy or drunkenness may also come into the equation. The current wintery weather makes me yearn for rich gamey casseroles, venison, steak & kidney puddings & thick, heavy soups.
The New Forest where I grew up consists of 145 square miles of forest & heath land that was set aside in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a private hunting ground. Various species of deer, wild pig & game birds were introduced to the forest for the sole purpose of supplying William’s household with a fully stocked larder of hearty winter-type dishes.
Many of the old coach houses & inns in the Forest have survived down the years & at this time of year serve such traditional wintery favourites as venison haunch, rabbit stew, game pie, roast pheasant & the Commoner’s dish of ‘jugged’ hare.
As a Commoner you could have a hand chopped off for killing the king’s deer, but the hare wasn’t deemed worthy of the royal household as it’s generally very tough, so it was fair game to anyone. In order to tenderise the meat, hare’s are hung for about a week, cut up & ‘jugged’ (pot-roasted). The blood of the hare is reserved to be added with it’s minced livers to the sauce, normally made from red wine, juniper berries & beef stock. This gives an already rich meat a further full-on gamey flavour.
I have to admit to loving my game, but ‘jugged’ hare has a particularly strong & acquired flavour.
Just before Christmas I was fortunate enough to get my hands on four nicely hung pheasants, compliments of one of our regular customers and thought that I would cook them gently in a rich, red wine sauce & re-heat them on Stephen’s Day as a change from leftover ham & turkey.
So the Tuesday before Christmas the pheasants were left to slow cook in the bottom oven in La Bucca whilst I attended the first ever meeting of the Auld Stand Male Only Choir, made all the more interesting by the fact that singing is ordinarily banned in this pub. It seems that Santa’s not the only one-off occurrence at this time of year as the choir plan to meet there again in Christmas week 2010.
As the choral service started to subside and the various choristers began making their way home, I inadvertently mentioned my pheasants, slow cooking back in the restaurant. Before I knew what was happening, instead of putting them in the blast-chiller overnight, the remnants of the Auld Stand Male Only Choir were tucking into the tenderest, tastiest game birds you can imagine.
It was agreed there & then that the two events should go hand in hand & next years Auld Stand Choir meeting will be rounded off with mid-night pheasant & possibly ‘jugged’ hare or rabbit if I can get my hands on some well hung bunnies. One Forest delicacy that was eaten by my not too distant ancestors that has never tickled my palate is hedgehog. I’ve managed to dig out an old 18th century Romany recipe, passed down through generations, so we may even try it as an appetizer on the night to get the taste-buds tingling.
Hedgehog, pheasant or hare are not readily available in most Irish high street butchers so this week’s recipe is for another winter favourite of mine; Stilton & Celery soup. Every year I buy a whole Stilton, which gets used over Christmas on cheese boards & the remainder made into a rich, creamy soup. Not everyone likes celery, so you can exchange it for another green vegetable such as leek or broccoli if you prefer.
The recipe below is currently being served at lunchtimes in ‘The Soup Kitchen @ Novello’, along with other homemade soups, chowder & goulash.
Stilton & Celery Soup
1 chopped onion
12 celery sticks
300ml vegetable stock
Cream for garnish
Dash white wine
4-5 Bay leaves
Salt & Pepper
Sautee the chopped onions & celery in the butter. Add wine & reduce for 3-4 minutes
Add the milk & bring to simmer. Blend until smooth.
Stir in cornflour until thickened. Add bay leaves, simmer for 5 minutes.
Crumble in the stilton, stir & continue to simmer, do not boil.
Serve & garnish with a swirl of cream.